Competition watchdog issues over R13m in fines for unfair price hikes during pandemic

The Competition Commission has tackled over 1 500 cases of unfair pricing of essential items since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and has issued fines of over R13 million in total, according to Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele.

Bonakele on Friday provided an update on the watchdog's work in clamping down on firms which have been unfairly hiking prices on products such as face masks, hand sanitisers and other essential goods. 

Some of the fines, he said, had been redirected as donations to the Solidarity Fund. 

There are also 30 firms in various stages of concluding settlement agreements after authorities found they had increased prices unfairly, he added.

The commission has been monitoring prices of certain essential items since the start of the lockdown period, said Bonakele. Research from Stats SA showed that prices have stabilised since a massive spike was observed in late March just before lockdown went into effect as consumers engaged in panic buying.

However, there is still "opportunistic behaviour" by some retailers, Bonakele said.

The cases against firms include workwear manufacturers and industrial suppliers Babelegi, for markups on face masks in excess of 500%. 

Firms Hennox 638 CC and Sicuro Safety have also been prosecuted for markups on filtering face-pieces and masks, respectively, by more than 900%.

A ruling from the Competition Tribunal on a matter lodged against Dis-Chem group for excessive increases in face masks, is still expected.

"We have seen a lot of stabilisation, but we are not out of the woods," said Bonakele. Price hikes are still expected, especially on wheat and rice as producing countries have not been exporting these products.

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